Springfield Public Schools all-staff back to school rally at Great Southern Bank Arena on the campus of MSU. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

In mid-August, on the first day of unpacking her new kindergarten classroom at Williams Elementary School, Sarah Hodges leaned on a set of counters, looked out at the open space and envisioned where things belonged. This upcoming year, her first teaching for Springfield Public Schools, is the first in a while that is beginning with no pandemic-based restrictions. On Aug. 22, the first day of school across SPS, Hodges and her kindergartners will be starting “as close to normal” as they possibly can, she said, and that factored heavily into her classroom design. 

The first item she situated was her favorite spot in the classroom: the gathering carpet. She unrolled it in front of the dry erase board. Soon after, she moved all the desks into clusters of four. 

“This is like the heart of kindergarteners, their little groups of four,” she said. During the past few years, her classroom desks were set up in single rows. Her kids couldn’t learn from watching each other or asking each other questions in the same way. 

Teacher Sarah Hodges sets up her classroom. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

By last Friday, Hodges had her floor plan in place. Along with the desk clusters and the gathering carpet, she’d set up a reading nook by the window and cubby shelves filled with items meant to spark conversation and curiosity in her kindergarten students when they held them. After she filled a cubby bin with astroturf samples she got for free from Menards, she started to think about the walls.

Embracing more than emotive eyebrows

Her sound wall, she said, would probably make sense over by her desk, which was bordered by five little chairs. Group learning will take place there, and linguistic skills will be at the heart of many of those lessons, she said. A poster showed the set of mouth formations you make when you pronounce certain sounds. Teaching with a mask on made wall art like that vital, because kids couldn’t see Hodges form words or sounds with her mouth.

Hodges is looking forward to smiling at her students. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

“And if, you know, they’re just trying to look at your little eyes and your eyebrows, it could become difficult,” she said, and then she demonstrated her recently developed emotive skills with just her eyebrows. “These are happy eyebrows. These mean business.”

Amanda Desa, the principal at Williams, said being able to start the school year off with staff development sessions held in the same room is a welcome change, especially since, like Hodges, there are a lot of new faces at Williams. 

“It’s definitely nice to know that we’re back — kind of — to normal,” she said. “We can see our kids’ smiling faces; they get to see ours. That’s really important in our relationships here at Williams.”

Everyone has now had the opportunity to take precautions against the coronavirus ranging from continued masking to getting vaccinations for themselves and their kids to enrolling in virtual learning. The SPS plan for safely returning to school focuses on continued sanitation of classroom spaces, supplies and heavily trafficked areas. Health conditions will be monitored. Surges like the school-closing omicron variant that hit last winter could change things. 

But right now, Desa said, “It’s nice to kind of just do school.”  

Relief as pandemic precautions shift into the rearview

Teachers at Williams Elementary School placed extra learning materials on a desk in the hallway to share with fellow educators who might need them as they set up their classrooms. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

For a kindergarten teacher like Hodges, the upcoming school year presents an opportunity to start young learners off in the way they should begin their public school journey. 

For parents of SPS students like Lizzie Kuehne, it is a time to get back on track. In an email conversation in mid-August, Kuehne, the mother of four deaf children, wrote that her children enjoyed a better learning experience at Holland Elementary last semester once their instructors and interpreters were able to remove their masks in early February. 

On a Zoom call with an interpreter last spring, Kuehne wrapped a shirt around her face to demonstrate what is lost when she signed while masked. 

“You can only see my eyes,” said Kuehne, who, along with her husband, is also deaf. “But you don’t know either (way) if I’m mad, or angry, upset, excited. You can’t see this part of my face. You can’t emphasize.”

Fingers are the voice of the deaf and hard of hearing community, Kuehne said, while the face provides the tone. When teachers and interpreters were required to wear masks at SPS, Kuehne was one of several parents of DHH children who wrote to the board of education and said their kids were falling behind in linguistic and cognitive development due to the safety protocols put in place during the pandemic. 

Writing early this month, Kuehne said her kids are feeling less stressed at the start of a school year which is starting to look more normal. 

Catching up students who have fallen behind

Dr. Nicole Holt, left, deputy superintendent of academics and Dr. Crystal Magers, executive director of academics, speaks with a reporter after the Springfield Public Schools all-staff back-to-school rally. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

At grade levels throughout the district, the start of this school year presents an opportunity to start classes the way that best addresses student needs, said Nicole Holt, deputy superintendent of academics for Springfield Public Schools. 

“We know that the best leverage point we have is kids seated in classrooms, getting opportunities to learn from experts, which is what we consider our teachers,” Holt said. “And so having everybody back together, having teachers focused on learning and essential outcomes for kids is exactly what we are excited to see happening across our system in the coming year.”

Two weeks after the first bell rings, teachers will begin the process of leading their students through the first of three testing phases with a new-to-SPS universal screener, meant to identify learning gaps ahead of state testing. At a pep rally for all 3,500 or so SPS employees hosted Tuesday at the Great Southern Bank Arena, superintendent Grenita Lathan had “Bohemian Rhapsody” queued up for when she started talking about it by name, Galileo

The sudden shifts in learning environments during the pandemic led students across the U.S. to fall behind expected levels of achievement. Holt said administrators and teachers know some SPS students will come into the year below grade level in core subject areas. 

Dr. Crystal Magers, executive director of academics,, speaks with a reporter after the Springfield Public Schools all-staff back-to-school rally. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The Galileo screener will help identify where students are lagging, and how best to target instruction to individuals, said Crystal Magers, executive director of academics at SPS. 

“It’s a chance for us to see where we are at the start of the school year,” she said. “Every grade level is tested on grade-level standards. We basically use it to inform our instruction, so we can make our instruction better and ensure it’s targeted on what our students need.”

On many SPS campuses, federal grant funding is being used to hire core subject interventionists who will collaborate with teachers to help students catch up to peers at their grade level. 

“All of our campuses had the opportunity to receive one to three additional positions, and they made a choice based on their campuses of how they wanted to utilize those positions,” Lathan said. “So I’m very thankful we have those that we’ve been able to fill those vacancies. We’re still working on some for some campuses. But I’m excited that we’re in a much better place starting off the school year than we were a year ago. We will continue to address learning loss through tutoring and additional supports, but also support through social workers, mental health support through our partnership with Burrell (Behavioral Health). So I’m really excited that we have resources to meet the needs of our students. We’ve just got to put them all in place.”

Dr. Grenita Lathan, SPS superintendent, speaks at the Springfield Public Schools all-staff back-to-school rally. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Laura Mullins, president of the Springfield National Education Association (or NEA), took one of the interventionist positions at Pershing K-8, where she previously taught sixth-grade math. She said she’s looking forward to closing learning gaps with small student groups, but also recognizes that there are only two years to make a difference before the grants expire.

“We don’t have time to waste, but we have a lot of added support in the building,” she said. 

Recent years were ‘most difficult chapters’ for many teachers

The theme of this SPS school year is: “Your story is our story.” At the pep rally Tuesday, Mullins was featured in a video in which she thanked every SPS employee for stepping up in the early pandemic years, which she described as some of the most difficult chapters for many educators to write in their respective stories. 

Springfield Public Schools all-staff back-to-school rally. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

At the conclusion of the last school year, 257 teachers retired or resigned from the district. Mullins has discussed the frustrations some teachers experienced as they navigated the pandemic. At the pep rally, she focused on the collective efforts of educators, nutrition service workers, nurses, secretaries, counselors and other SPS employees gave to get the opportunity to write the next chapter in the story. 

“I cannot be more proud of how our district and every SPS employee has been a source of strength and compassion for our students and families and each other,” she said in the video. 

Holt, who served as a co-emcee of the event, told the crowd that Lathan wished she could have started her first school year in the district with an event like the pep rally. While it came a year later than everyone hoped, everyone was together in one building. Soon, that will be the case in Springfield’s public schools. 

“Now, we’re just ready to get teachers in classrooms with kids,” Holt said. “That’s the exciting part. Bring on Aug. 22. We’re ready.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson